We have come at last to temperance, the last of nine aspects of the fruit of the Spirit as that fruit is outlined by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5. The word “temperance” in the original (Greek), we are told, means literally “inner strength.” It refers here to the strength of character which enables one to exercise control over his desires and passions. This temperance is therefore the equivalent of self-control. One who is temperate shows first of all, a kind of moderation in the gratification of his appetites, and in the curbing of sinful desires. But there’s also a more positive side of temperance: the disciplining of oneself to walk in the way of sanctification. Self-control, in other words, includes both saying no to what we should not do, and yes to what we should do.
Will we be able, for this fruit of the Spirit, to look again to the example of Christ’s life to show us the way? The exercise of self-control is necessary for us because we must be at war with the sinful desires of our hearts. For us, temptations from without find a ready ally in the desires within. But with Jesus, that was not the case. No sinful thought ever passed through His mind, and no sinful desire ever found a place in His heart. Is it perhaps true, then, that doing the will of the Father was something that came effortlessly for Christ, the sinless One? Was He unaffected by the temptations of the devil?
Satan tried repeatedly, you will remember, to lure Jesus into taking the first step in the way of rebellion against the way of suffering. Why submit to hunger pangs, the devil argued, when you have it in your power to make bread from stones? Why, later on, submit to arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, when you have it in your power to call twelve legions of angels to deliver you? Why remain on the cross, when you have it in your power to come down? Take your choice, the devil was suggesting. Is it going to be the way of suffering and humiliation. . .or will you use the power which you possess as the Son of God, to avoid that suffering, and gain your ends the easy way?
The question then is this: did those constitute real temptations for our Lord? Was there a real struggle taking place there in the desert? Or, was it rather the case that, as the Son of God Who never did sin nor could sin, He remained unaffected by these assaults of the devil, and the only effort involved was that required for the selection of appropriate passages of Scripture to use in His response? It’s emphatically true of course that. Christ could not, though He possessed a weakened human nature, yield to the temptation to sin. But we must maintain this, that the temptations were no less real for the fact that the outcome was assured from the beginning. For, just as surely as Jesus’ body could suffer hunger and thirst and pain, so surely could His soul shrink from the thought of the anguish which He would have to endure. We need only think of Gethsemane (“If it be possible let this cup pass from me’’). The Spirit of Christ knew exactly whereof He spoke when He declared through the inspired writer to the Hebrews that Christ “himself hath suffered being tempted” (2:18). The truth is that the temptations of the devil could represent for Christ a gigantic struggle. “We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Knowing something of the devil’s hatred for God, and of his determination to bring ruin to God’s kingdom here on earth, we can well imagine that he paid closer attention, personally, to Jesus than he did to any other person before or after that time. Perhaps we sometimes are inclined to think, when we struggle with the kinds of temptations that call for extraordinary exercise of self-control, that nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen. Not so. For one thing, “there hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man” (I Cor. 10:13). But, besides, our struggles pale by comparison to those borne by our Lord when He walked among us.
Is wealth a snare to us? Look to Jesus. If He had chosen, He could have enjoyed the finer things in life. But He didn’t. Foxes have their holes, birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of man had not where to lay His head. Luxury of living, stylishness of dress, conformity to the vain world — people who value such things cannot look to the example of Christ for justification. Rather, self-denial and plainness of living and manners are the mind of
Christ, and ought to be in us who are His disciples.
Is it food and drink that give us a problem? Look to Jesus. He could no doubt enjoy a good meal as much as any man. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. God created man such that he can enjoy things that are pleasant to the senses. We read of the trees in the garden of Eden, as they were created by God, that they were both good to eat and pleasant to the sight (Gen. 2:9) But man’s desires have been corrupted. The pleasure of eating tasty food and drinking of the fruit of the vine becomes very easily gluttony and drunkenness. What place, however, did food and drink have in the life of Jesus? There were times when He gave Himself so completely to the ministry of the Word that He did not even (much to the consternation of His friends) find time to eat (see Mark 3:20, 21). Not always of course was Jesus so pressed by the multitude. There were times of comparative leisure — as for example on the day in which he spent some time with Mary and Martha in their home in Bethany. But even then it becomes obvious that eating and drinking was not a high priority activity for the Master. Martha set about preparing a sumptuous meal for their most honored guest. Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and to commune with Him of spiritual things; and Jesus declared that that was “the good part.”
Do we have trouble budgeting our time such that we have room always in our busy daily schedules for meditation, for prayer, for study of the Scriptures? That takes a good measure of self-discipline, doesn’t it? How easy it is to be so busy, from sunup to sundown, with a veritable host of legitimate and necessary activities, that we just don’t find time for communion with God! Look to Jesus. What did He do when things got really busy? “In the morning, rising up a great while before day. he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1:35). And that apparently followed an evening in which “all the city” had gathered at the door of the house in which He stayed, bringing with them their sick in order that He might heal them. I suspect that, after such a full day, we would have thought ourselves entitled to “sleep in” the next morning. We need our rest, after all. But so did Jesus. He was not any stronger, physically, than we are. Sleep therefore was just as necessary and pleasant for Him as for us — and getting out of bed, especially early, probably just as distasteful. But, knowing as He did the necessity of fellowship with and prayer to His Father, He disciplined His physical body in order to provide time for it.
Do we have difficulty controlling our anger in the face of provocation? Look to Jesus. Think of the time when he and His disciples planned to pass through a city of the Samaritans, on their way to Jerusalem for the last Passover. The Samaritans of that particular city refused to give Him food or lodging, because “his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). James and John were stung by this rejection of their Master. Their attitude was well expressed in their question to Jesus, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?” Vengeance was what they wanted, for a perceived insult. Ah, how like us! But Jesus Who was Himself the real object of that rejection, rebuked those disciples, saying, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” And they passed on to another village.
To speak at all of self-control as that was exercised by Christ, one must of course make some reference to His enduring the taunts of the wicked at His cross. “If he be the King of Israel,” the mockers say, “let him now come down. … He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him. for he said, I am the Son of God” (Matt. 27:42, 43). Jesus hangs there, to all appearances helpless, on the cross. What therefore has come of all His claims? To think that He could be the King of the Jews, on the cross, is preposterous! But even more inconceivable it is, they say, that the Son of God could have been subjected to the treatment that Jesus had received during the past few hours, and then be hanged on a tree. The fact that it happened, and that He now does not come down, puts the lie to all His claims. He remains there — because He cannot come down. And He cannot come down — because He is not the Son of God. God disowns Him; God will not have Him. He’s an impostor.
Who of us would need half that kind of challenge to our veracity, half that abuse, half that slander, before we would happily abandon any thought of self-control? The godless Sanhedrists argued in effect that such self-control was unthinkable. They made their case here on the assumption that no man would ever need that much provocation to use whatever means were at his disposal to clear himself and to wreak vengeance on his enemies. They could not conceive of a power that is not exercised in self-interest. They acted therefore as if they had an airtight case. Jesus did not escape crucifixion, and once on the cross He did not come down, simply because He had not the power to do so.
Satan, without doubt, knew better. By the taunts of the Sanhedrists, the soldiers, the passers-by, and one of the other victims of crucifixion, he was trying to provoke Jesus, Whom he knew to be the Son of God, to come down from that cross. The devil thus made one last desperate attempt to turn Christ from the way of obedience. But it was futile. Though His glorious name was being dragged in the dirt, and though His blessed body was suffering the excruciating pain which belonged to death by crucifixion, Jesus stayed on the cross, saving not Himself but, in the way of perfect obedience. . .me.
Compared to the trials which our Lord endured, our own struggles of self-control — whether that be with regard to gluttony, sexual impurity, spiritual laziness, outbursts of temper, envy, materialism, or whatever — may seem slight indeed. In no way however do we mean to suggest that the battle, for the child of God, is not a fierce one. It is. Solomon says of temperance, of self-control, that “he that ruleth his spirit (is better) than he that taketh a city” (Prov. 16:32). In commenting on that inspired observation, Charles Bridges writes, “The taking of a city is child’s play, compared with this wrestling. . . . That is only the battle of a day. This, the weary, unceasing conflict of a life.” A conflict it surely is, for we fight against the wiles of the devil, who aims at nothing less than our destruction. And, further, we are at war with the lusts of our own flesh, which is ever with us. We may wish for the eradication of the tendencies of our corrupt natures, but the truth is that in this life it will not happen. To be above temptations, in fact, would be to have a higher life on earth than our Lord had. We must learn therefore to resist temptation and to govern our appetites. And, just because Christ Himself “suffered being tempted,” we can look to Him for that standard of moral excellence which God requires that we strive after.
Better it is to say that we must look to Him. As Arthur W. Pink put it in a little pamphlet entitled “Personal Holiness,” let a man “either put on the life of Christ or drop the name of Christ” (emphasis added). The point is that to be or not to be an imitator of Christ is not for the child of God an optional spiritual luxury. “Be ye followers (i.e., imitators) of me,” writes the Apostle Paul, “even as I also am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). Notice that he does not say simply “Believe what Jesus taught,” but “Live the way He lived.” We do well, surely, to heed what Jesus taught. The truth is that no purer precepts than those given by Christ in His Word are to be found anywhere in the world. But Paul stresses the fact here that Jesus gave to those precepts the force of a perfect example of purity in disposition and walk, and that that example has been left for us to follow.
It is impossible for one to be a follower of Jesus and at the same time to have a casual attitude with respect to the matter of temperance. Jesus said as much when He declared, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself. . .” (Luke 9:23). That’s necessary because the natural man minds “the things of the flesh” (Rom. 8:5). By nature, he understands, he pursues, he relishes only the things of this world. Christ, as we have seen repeatedly in our study of the fruit of the Spirit, was not at all like that. And those in whom is the mind of Christ, must mind heavenly things, as He did. Their affections must be set on things above, not on things below. Their life must be characterized by a spiritual mindedness, as that constitutes the grand difference between those who follow Christ and those who do not.
How evident is that difference in your life? How serious are you about imitating Christ? It is true, of course, that our salvation is not conditioned, even in the very least, on any meritorious work of our own; but that does not remove the “fear and trembling” which the inspired Apostle associates with the working out of our salvation (Phil. 2:12). And in our striving, the standard by which we must measure our lives is nothing less than the perfect life of Christ. I ask again, how serious are we in actually using that standard?
At the time of this writing, there are not students in our seminary. We have to be careful about drawing conclusions as to the reason for this state of affairs, but we cannot help but wonder if a contributing factor is that too few of us look first at how we can best serve our Lord Christ in our life’s work.
Not all of us can be ministers or missionaries or teachers, but all of us can assist in the support of that work. Look around you, sometime, when you park your car in the church lot on Sunday. There’s enough money represented there on wheels to send a missionary (or two or three, depending on the size of the lot) anywhere in the world for a year. Nothing wrong with a nice car, of course, but I wonder sometimes if our appetites, in many different things, are being mistaken for necessities. I like the way George Bethune put it: “A yet further reason for self-denial is that the limits we think are those of lawful indulgence are continually though imperceptibly enlarging. He who once thought a small house would be enough for him finds himself straitened in a palace.” How easy it is to view the things we would like to have as being things we should have. And then the causes of God’s kingdom go begging. One of the most difficult problems facing school boards is how to balance tight budgets. And synods, in the interest of fiscal responsibility, are very conscious of the budgetary implications of every decision taken regarding the churches’ mission activities. So our synodical assessments set our families back $434 per year. For the cause of the proclamation of the gospel: $434! And we continue to drive our Oldsmobiles, buy our motor homes, take our European vacations. Young people, how about you? Do you pick up this spirit early (by imitation)? Do you buy cars you can ill afford, frequent fast-food restaurants, think nothing of the cost of going with friends to a major league baseball game. . .and have a buck or two for the collection plates on Sunday?
I’m not saying that a child of God must deny himself every pleasure available to him in this life. (It happens that I myself drive an Olds — an old Olds, it’s true, but it was not always such — and I’ve been in Europe.) One need not reduce himself to a state of poverty to be a member of the church of Christ. But I cannot help but wonder, in connection with our study of this particular manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, if we really see the things of this world for what they are, in the light of eternity, namely empty bubbles. Our Lord never developed any relish for the vanities of this life. We have. And though “things” are not wrong in themselves, nor the use of them to be categorically condemned, much of our taste for material possessions and earthly pleasures is to our shame. We are in this world for one reason only: to glorify God in our service to our risen Savior. We all agree with that of course in theory, and as a point of doctrine; but what does it mean, practically, in our lives? It means that, in choosing a vocation, we look first at service. . .and make the matter of job security, salary, and satisfaction a secondary consideration. It means that, in deciding what to do with money earned, we see it not as a question of how much of our money we should give to the service of the Lord, but rather as a question of how much of the Lord’s money we can justifiably spend on ourselves. We are not, you see, owners, but stewards. And, rest assured, we are accountable for every dime.
The genuineness of saving faith is proved only as it shows itself in experimental godliness, in the fruits of true piety, in the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Because our natures are opposed to the Spirit, the practice of that godliness does not come without a struggle. It requires serious commitment and persevering effort. If there’s one thing that I hope we’ve come more to appreciate in our consideration of the fruit of the Spirit in this series of articles it’s this, that the race which we are called to run must be characterized by intensity. “Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate. . . (I Cor. 9:25). The battle with our depraved lusts requires a day-in-and-day-out, lifelong self-discipline. Even then, of course, our depravity is such that our victories will not correspond to our Spirit-motivated desires. In fact, concerning our failures, one of the ancient church fathers is said to have cried, “Blessed Lord, either these are not Thy precepts, or we are not Christians.” Perfection we will not reach, on this side of the grave. But the question nevertheless is this, does the love of Christ so compel you that you press to the goal of godly perfection? Do you ardently long to resemble the Savior? If so, be not dejected. For that desire is of the Lord. Continue to look much at Jesus, in the Holy Scriptures. The more you do, the more, by His grace, you will look like Him. And before long you will see Him as He is, and be satisfied; for when He shall appear, you shall be at last like Him, perfectly, forever (I John 3:2).